Why You Must Visit Asmara? – Profile Newspaper

Asmara: its crime-free environment and Art
deco are the major tourist attractions

Asmara, the Capital city of Eritrea was founded some 700 years back. Originally, there were four clans living in the Asmara area on the Kebessa Plateau: the Gheza Gurtom, the Gheza Shelele, the Gheza Serenser and Gheza Asmae. Encouraged by their women, the men united the four clans and defeated the bandits who preyed on the area. After the victory, a new name was given to the place, Arbaete Asmara which literally means, in the Tigrinya language, “The four are united”. Eventually Arbaete was dropped and it has been called Asmara, though there is still a sub-zone called Arbaete Asmara. Asmara was relatively undamaged as the Ethiopian forces fled the city without fighting a full-scale battle at the end of the liberation war in 1991. Under thirty years of Ethiopian occupation, the city was allowed to deteriorate, but it still retains its essential beauty and since coming under Eritrean government control in 1991, it has been undergoing a rapid improvement in infrastructure, building repairs and repainting. Visitors do not only admire the welcoming people of Asmara but its architectural style, and its crimefree environment. The hospitality and the friendliness of the people of Eritrea in general, the dwellers of Asmara in particular have always impressed tourists. The people of Asmara give warm welcome to guests in various ways. Mothers cheer up and fathers jump by swaying their swords for the honour of guests. Furthermore, the Eritrean coffee ceremony is the one that almost all the tourists find it most appealing because it is not only the coffee that they enjoy most but the way the hosts are dressed, the traditional dress-Zuria, the popcorn and the atmosphere which creates chance to every tourist to have communication with the Eritreans around them. The Eritrean traditional songs and dances also compel the tourists to move their shoulders up and down unconsciously and make them dance in a very unusual way. The other beauty of Asmara is that it is more alike with Rome. Asmara was called Piccola Roma (Little Rome) as there are more similarities than differences between Roma and Asmara. In the late 1930s the Italians changed the face of the town, with a new structure and new buildings. While Eritrea was under Italian colonial rule, architecturally conservative early-20th-century Europeans used Asmara “to experiment with radical new designs.” Nowadays the major part of buildings is of Italian origin, and shops still have Italian names (e.g. Bar Vittoria, Pasticceria moderna, Casa del formaggio, and Ferramenta). Tourists, who have never visited Rome, can guess what it is like by just paying a visit to Asmara. Asmara is everything you wouldn’t think of an African capital: hassle-free, orderly, wellmannered, unthreatening and hedonistic. This sheer incongruity is a legacy of the Italian era, when Eritrea was the pride of the colonial empire and Asmara its diamond tiara. Moreover, in the 1920s and 1930s, a new and daring architectural movement called ‘rationalism’ sprang up in Italy, and Eritrea became an architectural laboratory. Dreaming of creating a new Roman Empire, Mussolini let architects go wild with their creativity in Asmara, earmarking it as a showcase city for the fascist regime. Nicknamed ‘Piccolo Roma’, the city starred as belle of the ball on the continent, exhibiting a phenomenal melange of modernist, cubist, futurist, expressionist, functionalist, neoclassical and Art Deco styles. Around five hundred edifices – flamboyant cinemas, hotels, city halls, mosques, churches, villas, government offices, corporate buildings, a swimming pool and even a bowling alley – were constructed in less than ten years. The 20th century Asmara’s architectural styles happen to be the major tourist attractions. Perched on a plateau that rises two kilometres above the Red Sea, the Eritrean capital of Asmara has one of the world’s highest concentrations of early modern architecture. Constructed primarily between 1936 and 1941 by Italian colonists under Fascist rule and isolated during a 50-year conflict with Ethiopia, the urban fabric of Asmara’s city centre represents a bold attempt to create a utopian city based on modernist planning and architectural ideals. Unconstrained by the more conservative environment of Europe, Asmara’s architects and engineers borrowed from a wide range of building styles including Novecento, Neo-classicism, Neo- Baroque, Futurism, and, most predominantly, Rationalism—a distinctly Italian interpretation of the Modern International Style. The fusion of European modernism with African highland culture resulted in a unique urban environment that has survived remarkably intact. Today, more than 400 extant buildings remain from the Italian occupation period, among them the Asmara Theatre. Designed in 1919 by renowned architect and engineer Oduardo Cavagnari (1868–1920), the theatre was built as the city’s first performing arts venue. With an eclectic mix of styles, the theatre’s interior is distinguished by Art Nouveau-influenced frescoes. Moreover some buildings are neo- Romanesque, such as the Roman Catholic Cathedral, some villas are built in a late Victorian style. Art Deco influences are found throughout the city; essentially Asmara was then what Dubai is now. Architects were restricted by nothing more than the bounds of their imaginations and were given the funds to create masterpieces which we can see today. Essences of Cubism can be found on the Africa Pension Building, and on a small collection of buildings. The Fiat Tagliero building shows almost the height of futurism, just as it was coming into big fashion in Italy. In recent times, some buildings have been functionally built and they fit into Asmara as it is such a modern city. Despite Eritrea’s war of liberation, Asmara’s architecture has changed miraculously little since Mussolini’s days. Today it remains an utterly adorable model Art Deco town. There’s no need to be a connoisseur to savour its treasure trove of architectural gems, it all just stands out. Take, for example, Cinema Impero, which sits smack dab on Harnet Avenue. Its Art Deco façade sports some porthole lamps, each looking like giant radio knobs; this iconic building never fails to overwhelm. In the lobby, all the marble, chrome and glass features are original. Cinema Odeon and Cinema Roma are also sure to leave you breathless. The exterior of the latter features a magnificent marble-fronted façade, while the cafeteria in the lobby area is a soothing place, enhanced with dark wood fixtures and an impressive old projection camera. The same retro feel is perceptible at Cinema Odeon, with an authentic Art Deco interior. In addition, the city is home to the Eritrean National Museum and is known for its early twentieth century buildings, including the Art Deco Cinema Impero, Cubist Africa Pension, eclectic Orthodox Cathedral and former Opera House, the futurist Fiat Tagliero building, neo-Romanesque Roman Catholic Cathedral, and the neoclassical Governor’s Palace. The city is littered with Italian colonial villas and mansions. Most of central Asmara was built between 1935 and 1941, so effectively the Italians managed to build almost an entire city, in just six short years. Asmara was known to be an exceptionally modern city, not only because of its architecture, but Asmara also had more traffic lights than Rome did when the city was being built. The city incorporates many features of a planned city. Indeed, Asmara was an early example of an ideal modern city created by architects, an idea which was introduced into many cities across the world, such as Brasilia, but which was not altogether popular. Features include designated city zoning and planning, wide treed boulevards, political areas and districts and space and scope for development. Asmara was not built for the Eritreans however; the Italians built it primarily for themselves. One unfortunate aspect of the city’s planning was areas designated for Italians, and Eritreans, each disproportionately sized. What is quite impressive about Asmara is its calmness. Unlike the other African towns, Asmara enjoys peace, stability and tranquillity as well as clean streets. It is the safest African capital for travellers and tourists and has been highly praised for its peaceful, crime-free environment by the large number of tourists who visited Eritrea very recently. Also, it is one of the cleanest cities in Africa. The city has been regarded as New Rome or Italy’s African City due to its quintessential Italian touch, not only for the architecture, but also for the clean and wide streets which are elegantly lined with palms and a string of boutiques, piazzas, coffee-shops and restaurants reminiscent of southern Italy. There are numerable pizzerias and coffee bars, serving cappuccinos and lattes, as well as ice cream parlours. Currently, Asmara is part of the major development campaign, carried out under Warsai Yikaalo National Development Campaign. More modern buildings have been added. The Sembel residential complex can be a good example. Also, the infrastructure has tremendously been improved. New roads are being built besides the renovated roads; as a result the people have become the beneficiary of an efficient and cheap means of communication. Many more development activities are ongoing. Deciding to visit Asmara will bring you a tremendous joy and will praise the lord for letting you see the beautiful art deco town. This is why you must visit Asmara.

Source: Eritrean News from Profile Newspaper 16. August 2010.

Author: Samuel Dermas Eit

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